We were night people, my mother said, born to succeed when daylight fails. But sometimes I felt that this had been bred into us built of our father’s intransience and our mother’s peace-making temperament.
Sunlight when we saw it fell softly through gaps in curtains onto honey-coloured carpets in dusty halls, or slid like a sword through a train window to skewer and magnify some aspect of our family – the many labels on our battered suitcases, the blue marks beneath our mother’s eye, the knife my brother used to dig idly under his fingernails.
Sometimes the shaft of sunlight fell upon my father sprawled sleeping on the carriage seat, arms spread wide while the rest of us huddled on the bench opposite.
He was a small man, my father, when the sunlight fell on him, but most people did not notice this, fooled by the way he held himself, the enormity of his voice, his hearty handshake and luxuriant moustache, and the way he appeared to take up more space and air in the room than anyone else.
My brother Brandon, I noticed, had begun to swell like my father, while each day my mother seemed to shrink a little more. My sister Janene was the only one capable of holding her own size and shape.
My father awake, seemed large whether in the sunlight or the spotlight, but it was only at night that the rest of us began to shine. We were, as I said, bred to it. We had learnt our roles by rote and practice – tap, tap, smile; the many ruses of display and dissemblance. We all had our allotted moment in the spotlight, but wherever we were, the shadow of our father loomed long across every stage.
Brandon groaned and stretched as we clambered from the train into the dusk of yet another dusty town. The shadows were already forming across the road, climbing the brick walls and the faded signs on the buildings and curling into corners. Father left my brother and me to marshal the suitcases while he strode ahead making connections, talking to the stationmaster, laughing his easy laugh, letting his voice boom outwards to encircle any onlookers.
Brandon was already taller than our father and he lifted two suitcases with ease while I struggled with the third. Mum and Janene came behind, burdened with the many smaller bags that seemed to encumber our journeys. Uncle Benny would come later with the truck.
Home for the next six weeks was to be the back of the abandoned Trades Hall Building. Its history was written in the dilapidated signs on the walls – Mechanics Institute, general stall, petrol station, Community Hall, but for now it would transform into – according to the banner we began to unroll across the balcony – ‘Reg McGee’s Dance Hall and Entertainment Extravaganza’.
The hall would be home until the local authorities had had enough, until the town councillors or the planning officers or the local constabulary had been persuaded to dig out from some rusty filing cabinet whatever ancient regulation could be used to move us along.
But for now, we prepared to shine. Mother and Janene swabbed and scrubbed the hall. Uncle Benny and Brandon unloaded the truck while I set up the tables and unfolded the chairs. I knew that in the dark no one would care about the shabbiness of the white tablecloths or that the flowers were fake, perfumed only by the faint sweat of our ongoing travels.
We spent the evening rehearsing and getting the heft of the room. Mother heard my monologue and watched my magic tricks – doubling as my beautiful assistant when I made the lady disappear. Janene and Brandon practiced their dances. Brandon had grown tall enough, my father said, to make an acceptable partner for Janene and he made them rehearse their couple dances again and again.
‘No! No!’ He shouted, pushing Brandon out of the way. ‘You have to make every man in the room envy you. You have to make it smoulder – watch.’
He pulled Mum towards him, his arm tight across her back, fixing her with his eye, relentless, so that she had to follow him. For an instant I almost believed the romance of it. Then he dropped her abruptly and turned to Uncle Benny with a wink.
‘Make them weak with the want of her, and they will drink all the more.’
Benny just grunted and continued to stack bottles into the corner behind the make-shift bar.
Whether it was Father’s teaching, or Brandon’s aptitude, by the end of the next evening they had become a success. A long line of men – overgrown boys most of them, queued up to dance with Janene and Mum, and a longer line circulated in front of the bar where Uncle Benny taciturnly served and Father practiced his impression of a genial, big hearted man.
It was a hard-bitten, hard-drinking rural town. Most of the places we brought our show to were full of shopkeepers and shearers and farmers who had responsibilities the next day. If they drank all night and fell down drunk in the morning there was always someone to pour water on their head and to help them into the back of an ancient vehicle and trundle them home.
This town was different. The packing plant had folded five years ago, leading to the slow collapse of other business along the spine of the town. It had left in its wake a group of men with nothing to do. They were night creatures like us, content to drink and dance in the evenings and sleep the heat of the day away.
Each night they grew rowdier during my magic tricks and Father’s monologues and made rude gestures and called out during the exhibition dancing. Mum said we should move on to somewhere new, but Dad said the bar money was too good to waste by pulling up stumps prematurely.
They’re just restless,’ my father said. ‘Nothing a steady job or a good war wouldn’t shake out of them.’
My mother shuddered. ‘Don’t wish that upon them,’ she said, looking at Brandon and me. ‘Don’t wish that upon anyone.’
They were big men with oxbow arms and stomachs – run to fat now. Men who towered above my father and when they danced they swung my mother and Janene swiftly between them – easy as slinging sacks of wheat onto a conveyor belt.
One evening a group of them swung Janene out the door and into the alleyway behind. One step, two step, quick-step and she was gone.
Like a magic trick.
If she screamed, no one heard it above the music. Perhaps it happened when all eyes were on our parents’ slow romantic waltz, or in the Latin-American dances when everyone was up on the dance floor kicking their heels high to a frantic beat.
No one saw until she returned, bruised and bleeding, her make-up streaming down her face, hair wild, and with her jaunty green dress ripped from breast to hem. She stood in the doorway and my mother turned to stone mid dance. My father’s instinct was only to hide her, to keep the punters happy, the music going, the grog flowing.
‘Dance,’ he commanded my mother. But she would not.
The whole room turned slowly silent as one by one they became aware of Janene, her gasping animal sounds; the way she swayed against the door post in her broken heels.
And then someone laughed. A harsh drunken laugh.
My brother, who like the rest of us had been frozen at the sight of Janene, came suddenly to life. He recoiled, pirouetted – left kick, right kick and then slid his knife into the side of the laugher. Or perhaps it was not even the man who laughed. I don’t think we will ever really know. Brandon was lashing out at anyone who was near.
Blood began to flow from the man. He had an almost comical look of surprise on his face as if he couldn’t believe that it was really his bodily fluids dripping downwards and making the dance floor slippery. The man deflated slowly as if air was leaking from a balloon. My father deflated with him. Only Uncle Benny seemed capable of action. He ran across to Brandon and grabbed the knife from his hand, wiped it quickly on one of the white tablecloths and then shoved it into the waist band of his trousers.
‘Go,’ he said to Brandon. ‘The station. There’s a train due in five minutes.’
Uncle Benny pushed Brandon towards me. ‘Take him. Get him out of here. I’ll deal with the rest.’ He scanned the crowd, searching for my father. ‘You too Reg,’ he called. ‘Get to the station. Now!’
And as always, we responded to our cues. I pulled Brandon out of there before anyone knew what was happening. Another neat piece of misdirection while people were still crowding in trying to help the man, or just to look, craning their necks; their feet smearing the dance floor with bloody foot prints.
Another disappearance in the dark. Another magic trick.
Brandon and I spilled stumbling from the hall and ran through silent streets with our father pounding behind. The whistle of the train as it reached the bend was long and low and animal, the sigh of its brakes like our own steamy breath as we climbed aboard.
We sat in silence and I watched our reflections in the carriage window flickering in and out of the light as the train left the station. I saw now that my father’s shadow was diminished, and I knew no matter how hard I practiced or how many magic tricks I tried, I was never going to be able to put him or the pretty ladies back together again.